This But Not Just This
Where the Lighthouse Begins by Timothy Houghton. Cliffs of Moher [Eire]: Salmon Poetry. 62 pp, $14.95, €12.
A major poet, claimed W. H. Auden, changes over time: his later work is not like his earlier. By this criterion, Timothy Houghton’s seventh book, Where the Lighthouse Begins, makes larger claims. The unrhymed lines of Houghton’s previous work remain, but the couplets and poised pauses give way to musings that make for a series of tight lyrics frequently in a new mode of contemplative reminiscence. The cover, “Water Birds” by Jackson Pollock, shows a set of loosely and linked abstractions that echo the manner of the poems themselves. That manner may be described best by the poem that provides the nicely enigmatic title of the whole, “Speeds,” as
… accumulating, with attendant stage lights
in front of an audience
alien to me.
Loneliness or alienation is the dominant feeling of this collection. In the best poems, which are many, this feeling is quietly split into emotions that are double-edged and obliquely conflicted. “Threshold,” for example, is sadly critical; “The Fence Out Back” eerie, vengeful and comically familiar; “Middle-School Boy” affectionately rueful; “The Trench” reluctantly self-critical. Houghton’s sensibility here is not settled, but restless, and the poems can conclude with metaphors that reverberate into larger contexts or, more usually, with implied contrasts or limitations.
We aren’t meant for here, where smart life
grips the earth loosely, stands prepared
in the currents. (”Maine Bog”)
Anything—very often it is family, but it can be a camping trip, or readings in John Berryman or Samuel Beckett or W. B. Yeats (appropriate for a book published by Salmon, an Irish press)—can evoke these sentiments. Animals, especially, seem to stir Houghton’s muse: birds (a ruby-crowned kinglet, a kestrel, crossbills), the speaker’s cat (“Now Down,” a lovely, tender ten-line elegy to “my cat, Jack”), or a fatally injured dalmatian (“Crypt”). However, the book could not be fairly seen as a romantic throwback. It mentions computers, “blacktop,” “a mowed lawn,” a forty-watt bulb in a garage. A momentary “peace” en plein air might be “marvelous,” but the speaker is under no illusion that he can return to it or use it for succor.
Where the Lighthouse Begins is beautifully designed and typeset. It was a pleasure to hold and look at, with its cover art in full color and its generously leaded lines. More, it was a pleasure to read, to be drawn in by the judicious eye, the complex sensibility and, ultimately, the candor and warmth of its author.
Until he retired in 2018, Roger Lathbury taught English at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
A bibliophile, wine lover, and collector of antique paperweights, he lives in Virginia with his wife Begoña, a painter and sculptor.